November 8, 2019

Prison ministry, death penalty discussion at the heart of Sister Helen Prejean’s Nov. 16 talk in Bloomington

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

BLOOMINGTON—Less than one month before federal executions are scheduled to resume in Terre Haute, one of the country’s leading activists against the death penalty will speak just 60 miles east of the federal prison where they will take place.

Sister Helen Prejean, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, will be in Bloomington on Nov. 16 at a conference hosted by the Corrections Ministry of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Sister Helen is best known for her 1993 book Dead Man Walking, which chronicled her ministry to inmates on death row and was the basis for an award-winning 1995 film. Her untiring efforts to abolish capital punishment and minister to the condemned span more than three decades.

“Going in there and looking in the eyes of that first person I visited on death row, was like, ‘My God! He’s a human being,’ ” she described to The Criterion in a telephone interview on Oct. 25.

“We’re made in the image of God. Nobody can be defined by the worst act in their life. Human beings are always going to be worth more than the worst part of their life,” she said.

Sister Helen estimates that she has walked through prison doors thousands of times. She has ministered to numerous death-row inmates in her home state of Louisiana, as well as other nearby states, and is regularly present as a spiritual support during executions.

“Walking with a man to execution and he’s shackled hand and foot, he’s surrounded by six guards and they’re going to kill him. He couldn’t be more defenseless,” she said.

Her person-oriented approach has been a part of a gradual development of Catholic teaching on the death penalty. Prior to recent decades, the Church held that execution was occasionally morally acceptable in order to protect society from those who may be dangerous.

Sister Helen wrote to St. John Paul II to urge him that the modern prison system was sophisticated enough to confine violent persons.

During a visit to St. Louis on Jan. 27, 1999, St. John Paul II preached “modern society has the means of protecting itself without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”

In August 2018, Pope Francis built on his predecessor’s example. He revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to state that the death penalty is “inadmissible.”

Still, Sister Helen says that many Catholics support capital punishment. This is one of the reasons she wrote Dead Man Walking, as well as her newest book, River of Fire, which narrates the experiences that ignited her own passion for ministry.

“You don’t just argue with people and try to shut them down, it’s the art of persuasion and stories. So boy, I’m all loaded with stories,” she said.

Sister Helen will share those stories as the keynote speaker at the archdiocese’s annual conference that aims to support those who minister in prisons. Deacon Marc Kellams, the archdiocesan coordinator of Corrections Ministry, originally heard Sister Helen speak at a national event last year.

“She was such a dynamic speaker,” Deacon Kellams said, “and her comments and her life’s work are even more relevant considering now that the federal government is reimplementing executions.”

Within the borders of the archdiocese is the only location for executions by the federal government. Distinct from death rows maintained by individual states, the Federal Corrections Complex in Terre Haute is where the Department of Justice holds those sentenced to death by a federal court.

No one has been executed by the federal government since 2003, with only three occurring in the past 30 years. However, Attorney General William P. Barr announced on July 25 that five people would be executed in Terre Haute in December and January.

“It’s the arbitrariness and capriciousness of the political winds,” said Sister Helen. “We’re selecting these five people, and they’re going to kill them. It’s so arbitrary in its application; it always has been.”

In April 2017, Arkansas executed four men in eight days. At the time of the scheduling, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the quick succession was necessary because the state’s supply of midazolam, a sedative used in lethal injections, expired at the end of the month.

Sister Helen is quick to state that only the poor are sent to death row, that those with sufficient funds to pay for top-notch attorneys usually avoid the sentence. She also maintains that the families of victims are not given peace, but more deeply wounded by the drama that surrounds capital punishment.

“[The families of victims] are in a public holding pattern. So, they can’t even grieve in private because it’s public; the media is at the door any time there’s a change in the status of the case,” she said.

The archdiocese is ramping up efforts to minister to inmates, both to those at the federal complex and those within the approximately 50 other jails and prisons in the archdiocese. The event featuring Sister Helen is the third archdiocesan conference of its type.

In addition to the keynote, the day will have breakout sessions that address topics like how to conduct yourself during a prison visit and how to minister to the addicted. There will also be a panel of formerly incarcerated people who will share how regular visits from spiritual ministers changed their lives.

“The words of the Gospel are so clear: ‘I was in prison and you visited me,’ ” said Sister Helen, quoting the Gospel of St. Matthew (Mt 25:36).

“When you’re in prison, you’re given a number. You’re not a person, you’re treated like a number, and so you get a thousand signals a day in so many ways in prison life, that you are not human. Then someone walks in and visits you,” she said.

The event is free and open to those already involved in corrections ministry as well as those interested in learning more.

The conference will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the St. Paul Catholic Center, 1412 E. 17th St., in Bloomington. More information and registration are available at

(Katie Rutter is a freelance writer and member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington.)

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